If You're Curious About Orange Wine, Look to Ontario

The style itself is nothing new, but the trend of skin-fermented white wine is growing.

Southbrook Vineyards is a biodynamic winery that produces small-lot orange wines. Southbrook Vineyards is a biodynamic winery that produces small-lot orange wines.

On July 1, Canada celebrated its 150th birthday. In Ontario, the country’s most populous province, wine buffs had another milestone to commend: that was the day a new category was introduced by the local wine authority, VQA Ontario.

Officially, wines under the new category will be referred to as “skin-fermented whites” — but you might know them better as orange wines.

The style itself is nothing new. As Canadian Master Sommelier John Szabo explains in an article for WineAlign, Georgian production of skin-fermented whites dates back thousands of years, and an Italian renaissance of the style has been flourishing since the ‘90s.

But in Ontario, as in many New World wine regions, experimentation with skin contact and skin fermentation has only come about more recently —around the same time the style started catching on with consumers outside the industry.

These days, orange is to foodie types what rosé is to everyone else; you can practically measure a wine bar’s cool factor by the length of its skin-contact section.

What is orange wine?

If you haven’t tried this style yet, you probably have two significant questions: what is it, and how does it taste?

The simplest way to explain orange wine, as agreed by a panel of winemakers and experts speaking on the subject at Toronto’s 2017 Terroir Symposium, is white wine that’s made like red. And as panel member (and Guardian wine columnist) Fiona Beckett pointed out, they behave like red wines, too.

Orange wine tasting at Toronto's 2017 Terroir Symposium. Orange wine tasting at Toronto's 2017 Terroir Symposium.

Which means that, although there’s no simple answer to how orange wines taste — they can be made from a range of white grapes, after all – they certainly feel different from white wines. That’s down to the tannin imparted by skins, seeds, and stems during fermentation.

Hence VQA Ontario’s adoption of the term “skin-fermented white.” It’s unambiguous and prepares the drinker for a certain range of characteristics, whereas with “orange,” or “skin contact,” the results of the winemaking process might be much more variable.

Why change the rules?

The new category came about in response to a request from Ann Sperling, winemaker at Niagara-based Southbrook Vineyards. Sperling, who recently released her third edition of a vidal-based orange, asked that VQA Ontario look at how to fit orange wines into their rules.

“I didn't necessarily ask for a new category,” says Sperling, “but that was deemed to be the best way to make it happen.”

Ann Sperling is the winemaker at Niagara-based Southbrook Vineyards. Ann Sperling is the winemaker at Niagara-based Southbrook Vineyards.

For Ontario winemakers, VQA approval has a significant impact on product labelling, tax incentives, and even the right to export their products.

VQA Executive Director Laurie Macdonald says that the request was well-supported by the industry. “Occasionally these regulation changes take a long time — this one went quite smoothly.”

So smoothly, in fact, that Sperling’s 2016 Small Lot "Natural" Orange has already been approved under the new category. One other skin-fermented white has been approved, and another is in progress with the VQA tasting panel, but Macdonald is aware of around ten Ontario wineries currently experimenting with this style.

How Ontario leads the way

Sperling also maintains a presence on the West Coast, and, together with like-minded British Columbia wineries, proposed recognition of orange wines in that province as well.

“The B.C. team chose to accommodate orange wines within the white wine category,” she says, “So it wasn't as big a change and it didn't require ministerial approval.”

But the VQA Ontario rules (as presented to attendees of the Terroir Symposium panel) set out specific viticultural requirements for the new category: “100 percent of the grapes used shall be macerated and fermented on their skins for a minimum of 10 days. Fermentation shall occur when the skins are present.”

Niagara-based Southbrook Vineyards recently released a third edition of a vidal-based orange wine.

This legislation could set a new standard for New World wine regions seeking to codify the winemaking process for skin-fermented whites.

“We’ve talked to New Zealand and Australia and they’re actually interested in our rules,” says Macdonald. “But they’re not sure if they’re going to have anything codified or not.”

The triumph of terroir

Even if the Ontario viticultural rules catch on elsewhere, expect orange wines to vary from one region to the next.

“There's some criticism about the style that says it's all about methodology and it's not about terroir,” says Sperling, “But I think that a good parallel is sparkling wine ... When you're new to the category, maybe it's the bubbles that dominate, but over time, you come to recognize [different regions].”

In the meantime, Niagara might be a great place to start.

Lindsay Burgess is a food and drink writer published in the Globe and Mail, Spoonful Magazine and Bar Chick, and is a wine student working towards her WSET III qualification.

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